Jun 30, 2014 - 3:00pm

Harris v. Quinn: Mandatory Union Dues Invalidated

Executive Director, Labor Policy

Crossposted from the Workforce Freedom Initiative blog

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued another decision that observers of labor policy have been anticipating almost as much as last week’s ruling in Noel Canning.  The Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn delivered a considerable defeat to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions that have sought to expand their membership rolls and, more importantly, their bank accounts, by implementing dues-skimming schemes in several states.

The dubious history of this case dates back to the era of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was one of the early adopters of a cynical ploy to funnel money from workers to labor unions.  Back in 2003, he issued an executive order that purported to make private personal care assistants state employees and force them into a relationship with the SEIU, which would allegedly “represent” them.

The scheme was relatively simple: the government simply declared that these home care providers who perform services to Medicaid patients were state employees, and as such, they had to join the union and pay dues to it. Those who opted out of union membership using their rights under Supreme Court precedents still had to pay fees to the union, albeit for essentially nothing in return.  Of course, the same executive order simultaneously stated “the State does not hire, supervise or terminate the personal assistants.”  In other words, they were state employees for one purpose only: joining the union.

In the case decided today, the plaintiff, Pamela Harris, receives state subsidies through the Medicaid program to care for her son, who has a rare genetic disorder. Ms. Harris objected to paying mandatory fees to a union with whom she has no relationship, and many similarly-situated individuals also have questioned the legitimacy of this scheme. The situation ultimately prompted various lawsuits in Illinois and elsewhere to end organized labor’s systematic wage theft program.

This blog has covered the issue for quite some time (see, e.g., here, here, and here), and Harris’ case has generated significant interest in the world of labor policy.  Unions feared that the Supreme Court would overturn a relevant precedent called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in which the Court ruled that actual public employees could be forced to pay union fees even if they are not members, albeit not for political expenses.

The Court today twice called Abood “questionable,” but it did not go so far as to reverse it.  Nevertheless, the decision in Harris v. Quinn puts an end to this particular type of program involving individuals with no meaningful employment relationship with the state government.  In the ten states that have adopted this type of dues-skimming scheme, it will mean that the flow of funds to unions could be reduced by millions.  That in turn means less money for unions to spend on political campaigns to elect sympathetic politicians who concoct unholy alliances such as the one at issue here. 

All told, while today’s Court decision might be bad news to organized labor and their political allies, it is long-awaited good news for home care aides and others who objected to a forced relationship with unions that do not speak for them. 

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean P. Redmond
Executive Director, Labor Policy

Sean P. Redmond is Executive Director, Labor Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.